Hamline University brought Mideast students together with the hope of building healthier societies.
In 2002, the Civic Education Project began organizing meetings between Israeli and Palestinian educators to create a joint civics curriculum.
It evolved into a conference for teachers, expanding to include some from Jordan and Lebanon.
Participants spend 11 days at Hamline, visiting the State Capitol and local media outlets. They attend services at a church, a mosque and a synagogue, and take a day trip to Duluth.
The goal is not to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Nurith Zmora, a history professor at Hamline who helped found the program.
"We didn't want to touch the conflict, because we said, 'This is [just] going to be a competition about suffering,'" said Zmora, an Israeli. "It's not going to end the conflict and not going to solve the problem."
Instead, she said, the conference is an "example of reconciliation" between Israelis and Palestinians, focusing on ways to improve both societies.
This year's conference is the first to include students.
"We talk a lot about social stuff, things we have in common. We haven't discussed political issues yet," said Natasha, 14, who was eating with other Palestinian students Wednesday.
Conference organizers requested that students' last names not be used for fear of political reprisals when they return home.
The only foray into politics was Tuesday, when students spent the afternoon at the State Capitol.
Sitting at legislators' desks, the students joined participants from Minnesota Youth in Government to debate eight bills.
"I loved when we went in," said Rita, 17, of Lebanon. "It was a great experience to have a chance to give your opinion, and no one offends you."
At dinner Wednesday, the participants, who all speak English, ate Hawaiian pizza and hummus, and joked about the day's activities.
"I didn't expect to be friends [so] quickly with people," Rita said, adding that she looks forward to meeting more people she wouldn't encounter in Lebanon. "I feel at home."
Although the students are getting along, it's impossible to forget the conflict, Natasha said.
"I don't think we're here to just pretend we're friends and nothing is happening," she said.
When she gets home, Natasha said, she might write an article about the experience and call it "11 days with the enemy."
"It's saying to the people, even though there are a lot of opinions ... I'm here to see what they have to tell me," she said.
Students from all four places said they would take back lessons about leadership.
"There are a lot of interesting things in the sessions on leadership, to hear how in other countries they treat leadership and democracy," said Oshat, a 17-year-old Israeli.
The students and teachers both discussed the differences between a dialogue and a debate.
"We learn how to put your opinion in a good way, how to respect others but try to show your opinion is right," said Deya, a Palestinian student from east Jerusalem.
The students' activities should build healthier societies when they return home, said Hamline University law professor Ken Fox.
"It's a good example that there is a lot of promise in the next generation," he said.
Libby Nelson • 612-673-4758